In Need of Grace


I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, “The righteous will live by faith.”—Romans 1:16-17

Grace is one of those prodigious, stupendous words introduced to us in the New Testament. Grace is the manner in which God operates. He relates to us on the basis of grace, on the premise of his generosity. Humans relate to one another on the basis of performance—on the foundation of producing works and deeds which merit a reward.

Grace is what God does for us that we cannot do for ourselves. Grace is God’s free gift to us that is given without any obligation on his part, for there is nothing that we can produce or give to him that obligates him to us. Grace tells us that God is good to us because he is good, unrelated to any goodness we might be able to manufacture.

We find God’s grace difficult to comprehend because it doesn’t “operate” the way we do. We do things for others because they have done something for us. We like someone on the basis of what they have done or the assumption of what they potentially may do for us.

In my book Bad News Religion I quote Frederick Buechner, in his book Wishful Thinking—here’s what he has to say:

Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth…. A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.

Grace is the relationship God offers to us and it is by his grace that God elevates us. In the person of Jesus, God comes to us, gives himself to us and for us, serves us and actually gives us the gift of repentance by which our hearts might be changed, enabling us to receive him and accept him. By his grace, he draws us to himself. God’s grace is, among other things, the medium of attraction by which we are attracted to God.

It is by grace that God transforms us from the earthly, base elements of lust, greed and envy into his children, born from above. By God’s grace he rebirths us, and Jesus, our risen Lord, begins to live his new life, his risen life, in us.

The book of Romans is all about grace. The passage we are considering today is a convincing argument about why we need God and his amazing grace. The book of Romans tells us the good news that we are justified by faith. Justification simply refers to the fact that we are out of step with God, and through the act of justification he will spiritually align us.

Throughout the history of Christianity, humans have resisted the suggestion that they needed God to make things right. After all, we humans would rather take care of our own problems. We would rather not involve God in our lives. The first group of people that Paul addresses in the book of Romans lived their lives without attempting to involve God in what they were doing. They were hedonists, dedicated to eating, drinking and making merry.

But, Paul does not neglect to address the folks who thought they had no need of involving God in their lives because of their religious teaching (see Romans 2:1-16). Religion offers such people the illusion that their need of God is minimal.
Christ-less religion is notorious for convincing people of what they already want to believe, that they are in control of their own lives and that God will love them or not on the basis of how well they behave. Legalistic religion deceives us into thinking that we have little need of God because God expects us to earn our way into his heavenly kingdom.

For me, one of the great illustrations of human need, and the miserable slavery and horrible addictions that keep us captive, is a movie, now about 40 years old, called Cool Hand Luke. Luke, played by Paul Newman, is a headstrong young man who will not give in to the authority of the harsh prison chain gang to which he is sentenced. After one particularly brutal beating Luke is given, Luke is used as an example to the other prisoners, as someone who demonstrated a “failure to communicate.”

The book of Romans is dedicated to our “failure to communicate” with God, or as Cool Hand Luke called God, “Old Man.” Romans 2:1-3:30 teaches us that we are naturally out of step with God, that we cannot do all that needs to be done to make or keep God happy, that all of our best efforts to be virtuous and righteous fall far short of the perfection God demands, and that the only way for us to be justified is for God to do what we can never do.

The book of Romans is all about the human failure to communicate with God. In Romans 2:1-3:30 Paul is, in effect, saying of the human condition apart from God, “what we have here is a failure to communicate.” Because of our inability to connect to, plug into and communicate with God, we are In Need of Grace.

The church in Rome was a mixture of gentile Christians and Jewish Christians. There was a conflict between the two groups, not racially, but doctrinally.

The Jewish Christians considered Christianity as a “denomination”—a “variation” of Judaism. They believed that gentile Christians were required to become Jews before they became Christians, but the gentile Christians believed that they were free from the requirements of Jewish law and culture.

Romans is a masterfully written letter. Many decades ago there were law schools that actually used Romans as a text book, a great example of how to argue and build a case, brick by brick.

As you read Romans you will see many conjunctives, many summary statements when Paul says things like “therefore”—”because of this”—”furthermore”—”how then”—”now then”—”consequently”—which indicate a theological premise that Paul, inspired by God, is building. He carefully establishes one point, then he moves on to the next, and the next.

Earlier we read the manifesto, the purpose statement, the thesis of this entire book of Romans. Let’s re-read it now:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, “The righteous will live by faith.”—Romans 1:16-17

Following this declaration, Paul begins, both in the first and the second chapter, to demonstrate the need we all have of justification. He doesn’t leave any stone unturned. He doesn’t leave any group untouched.

He discusses three groups of people: 1) immoral, hedonistic Gentiles—he calls them pagans, for indeed, they were individuals who were polytheistic, people who believed in many gods, 2) hypocritical rule-keeping moralizers, and 3) self-satisfied Jews—satisfied that they were the people of the old covenant, the one and only true people of God, and that their spiritual heritage and breeding, if you like, made them superior to all other humans.

Paul summarizes the need of this first group of people—1) immoral, hedonistic Gentiles in chapter 1:29-31. Let’s read this list of 21 specific ways in which human behavior can fall short of God’s holy standards:

They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.—Romans 1:29-31

The next group he addresses is 2) hypocritical rule-keeping moralizers. Paul has “set this group up”—just as he does to us, his 21st century readers—for in reading this rogue’s gallery of 21 sinful behaviors, we automatically start to think of how bad those people are, and perhaps even think of a few specific people we know to be examples of such behaviors.
In that light, think of the reaction of the “goody-two-shoes,” self righteous, pleased-with-themselves religious crowd as they heard or read vs. 29-31. Then, Paul turned his theological cannon on them, with a full-scale, direct assault to help soften them up for the reality that they, too, were In Need of Grace.

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.—Romans 2:1

Then, after 2:1-16 is directed to the hypocritical rule- keeping moralizers, Paul continues with the third group, 3) self-satisfied Jews (see 2:17-3:20). Here is Paul’s argument directed to people who assume that they, and they alone, have spiritual superiority over others, by virtue of their law, by virtue of their traditions, by virtue of their superior doctrines, by virtue of their religious breeding. This of course was a mind-set, as I mentioned earlier, that was causing enormous damage to authentic, pure Christianity, causing it to be corrupted (see the book of Galatians).

I think that the one verse that best summarizes Paul’s case for the need of grace for those who advocated this mindset is found in chapter three, verse 9;

What shall we conclude then? Are we {Jews} any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are under sin.—Romans 3:9, my emphasis

Paul concludes this section with another summary statement,

Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.—Romans 3:20